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The Rise Of Nationalism In Nigeria

Categories: NationalismPolitics

“Nationalism is frequently regarded by liberal theorists as a universal kind of ideology emphasizing equality and human rights within its polity, but it can just as plausibly be seen as a kind of particularism denying non-citizens full human rights…”

(Eriksen 1991 265)



The legacy of colonialism helps to differentiate post-colonial African states from other states. Present borders in Africa are not the result of centuries of warfare, ethnic migration, and state-building, but rather they are the result of the weeks that the major powers of Europe spent at the Berlin West African Conference in 1884.

It was there that they carved up the continent for their own financial gain.

For good or bad, these borders remain virtually unchanged to this day. As a result, state boundaries in Africa often intersect the boundaries of ethnic groups, or homelands. Ethnic groups may be split among two or more states, either by accident or design on the part of the Europeans. In many states, the result is several large (but not always majority) ethnic groups.

States may have dozens of competing ethno-political groups in addition to groups with competing ideological political aims.

When many ethnic groups are split by state boundaries, this means that the ethnic group cannot rely on all of its members to make political policy gains, especially in functioning democracies. Ethnic groups must find other ways to maintain their identity in the state, by being able to hold onto their own ethnic identity while still being able to become the national identity simultaneously.

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This means the nationalism must be inclusive, able to embrace many different identities. What kind and pattern of nationalism is present in states is a problem that will be important in this study. The resulting lack of a cohesive political majority can be an obstacle to development. This study examines how Nationalism in Nigeria evolved and developed through the prism of ethnicity and national identity.

Nationalism plays an important role when it comes to multi-ethnic states. National identity is important in that it determines who gains access to the state’s benefits and rents. Nationalism becomes a way of identifying who is a member of the state and who is not; it becomes synonymous with “citizenship.” In primordial states it is usually only one pre-colonization group that decides the national identity. This leads to friction in multiethnic states. Citizens must give up their own ethnic identity (if they are even able) in order to assume the national identity. When ethnic groups do not want to become assimilated into the new nationalism based on another group’s identity, they seek to differentiate themselves, causing ethnic friction.

Historical Background of Nigeria

In Nigeria the story told by the state’s history is not one of an accommodating state nationalism, but rather of a continuing struggle for control of the central state by different individual groups at the expense of the other groups. Perhaps the most telling aspect of Nigeria’s history is that it was not incorporated into the modern state boundaries until 1914. Prior to the 19th century the area around the Niger River delta consisted of dozens of kingdoms, large tribes and confederations.

Sagay (2001) lays out an argument that Nigeria was a lose federation of states prior to colonialization and not the unitary state the British later claimed it had been. During the period until 1914 the British colonial authorities were willing to let local rulers control their respective parts of the region. Mid-century Britain organized North and South Nigeria. The Cameroons in the east and the Lagos port area were not incorporated into those two areas. It was not until 1914, on the eve of World War I, that England organized all four areas into modern Nigeria (Arnold 2001).

This area can be roughly divided into three main areas based on ethnicity. However, it is helpful to keep in mind that each area contains dozens of smaller groups, some of which may be subsets of the larger group, but most of which are considered ethnically distinct from the main group. In the north are mainly the Hausa-Fulani, actually two separate groups usually lumped together because of close cultural and linguistic ties. They make up the largest group in Nigeria numerically. They also share Islam, while most of the rest of the state is Christian or traditional animist. In the western part of the state are the Yoruba. The Ibo (properly known as the Igbo now) are mostly in the east, but, to complicate matters further, are also widely spread out in the north. (Gordon 2003).

There is much division among scholars (Gordon 2003) and reference resources (CIA World Factbook, World Bank) about the actual number of ethnic groups in Nigeria. Most cite the three main one’s plus about 10-15 smaller groups. Ibrahim (1998)notes that Nigeria is really made up of “hundreds of cultural and ethnic groups, the majority of which are dominated by the so called majority groups” (20). The Hausa are the largest, with about 21.3% of the population (the closely related and politically allied Fulani add another 10%), but there are a number of distinct groups with less than 10,000 members (Arnold 2001).

Arnold (2001) puts the number of distinct ethnic groups at around 250, Badru (1998) at more than 450, the CIA at 250 with the Hausa and Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo (Ibo), Ijaw, Kanuri, Ibibio and Tiv being the most important (CIA 2006). The main confusion rests on the definition of “ethnic group.” Some African specialists see many groups in Nigeria as tribes and not distinct ethnic groups. Nigeria is one of the most diverse states in Africa (Ibrahim 1998). Only five states in Africa are more diverse than Nigeria. It would seem only logical that ethnic diversity would have an impact on the politics and policy of Nigeria.

The colonial period under British rule saw a further reinforcement of ethnic diversity through the strengthening of regionalism. Larry Diamond (1988) notes that British administration, which initially carved up the region into three provinces, only led to a strengthening of the differences between the majority groups. In letting the North remain consolidated, they kept the Hausi-Fulani intact.

The Northern region held mostly Hausa-Fulani but also a large population of Igbo plus several other smaller groups. Since the Hausa-Fulani were the largest group they were able to gain administrative power under colonization. Equally damaging, they left the North with a much larger population that the East or South. This would prove problematic in the first republic as the North would seek to extend its base of power by wanting to maintain first-past-the-post central control rather than proportional representation.

Horowitz (1985) points out that this is one of the uglier aspects of colonialism, the “promotion of group disparity” (156). Britain especially, promoted certain tribal groups into civil service while it let others remain as agriculturalists or laborers. A classic African example of this is in Rwanda (a Belgian colony, Britain was not alone), where Tutsi were permanently elevated to the status of upper class over the Hutu farmers (previously membership had been fairly fluid). This happened in Nigeria as well, with the Hausa-Fulani and the Yoruba being given most choice civil service positions. The Igbo were left to the business sector, but effectively locked out of politics in the colonial era. This allowed the colonizer to divide and conquer the colony, as it were.

The Rise of National Identity

When independence comes, one have some groups already educated and in the civil government, while other groups have had little to no experience with governance. They feel locked out of government policy. If they are a minority group then they will feel permanently locked out. If the group elevated by the colonizer was a minority group, than they will feel entitlement and attempt to keep the majority group out. This occurred in Rwanda. It also occurred to a lesser extent in Nigeria. The Yoruba were highly distrusted by other groups, especially the Igbo, because it was felt the Yoruba had an inside edge beyond their proportional size because of their experiences in the British civil service (Aborisade and Mundt 2002).

Already in the colonial administration one see the groundwork being laid for a state with one group in power and other groups “out” of power, with no real expectations that the groups would cycle through the position of power. Even more damaging, those in the power group, shut off by colonial tradition from the business sector, would have to resort to graft and corruption in order to get material wealth, damaging the business community through inefficient government. This vicious cycle of closed groups would not only haunt Nigeria in politics, but also the economy.

The problems that ethnic diversity brings become apparent from the very start of the process of de-colonization by Britain. In 1947 the British colonial administration introduced a constitution, designed to give the colony more leeway in self-rule (but not independence). This marks the start of the decolonization process in Nigeria. The constitutions divided the colony into a federal system, with three main regions, North, South and East. However the colonial administrators found even this division to be ineffective in meeting the diverse needs of the Nigerian population. In 1949 the constitution was repealed and the administration reverted to a pre-1947 set up. A self-governing council was set up in 1954 to ease the country into independence.[1]

At independence there were three main political parties, split along ethnic lines. In the east, the Igbo formed the National Council for Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC); in the west the Yoruba had the Action Group (AG); and, in the north, the Hausa-Fulani had the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC). Ethnic-based political parties are in themselves not unusual, but in Nigeria they laid the groundwork for ethnic differences to affect the way.

If this seems like an easy transition from colony to independent state, it was. Arnold (2001) notes that independence movements in Western Africa were fairly violence free. He tells a great story of a Nigerian independence leader who said that they should have erected a monument to the mosquito, Malaria and other the government did business. The NCNC wanted a strong central government because the Ibgo were widespread and where they were concentrated were relatively bad off economically. (Arnold 2001) They wanted a central government that would be able to extend services to them instead of relying on local government with limited funds. The AG and the NPC wanted a fairly weak center but strong federal system because they had local resources they did not want to have to share with the rest of the state.

For all that Britain did to exploit their colonies, a systematic exploration of their mineral and oil deposits were not among their efforts. As in Botswana, the large oil deposits in Nigeria were not fully known until the 1960s, after independence. Their discovery in the eastern part of the country radically changed the views of the three main political parties and plunged the country into civil war.

After the discovery of large oil deposits, the NCNC began to campaign for a radical federal system in which they would not have to share oil revenue with the other parts of the country. The other parties, especially in the more populous north, began to think that a strong central government, which through a coalition with the AG they might be able to control due to their large population, would be a good way of equally distributing oil rent.

This led to friction between the North and the rest of the country, especially the Igbo in the East. The Igbo felt that since they were out-numbered by Hausa-Fulani (and their political allies the Yaruba) they would not get fair representation a centralized government. They also felt that since they had the oil, they should have a greater say. This friction erupted into violence against the Igbo who lived in the North in late 1966. The lack of response by the Huasa-Fulni-led Nigerian government made the Igbo uneasy about their role in the new Nigeria. (Ibrahim 1998)

The Nigerian government was taken over by a military junta and formed the Federal Military Government (FMG). In 1967 Ibgo in the east broke away from the rest of Nigeria and formed Biafra—ending the first Republic. This was in response to massacres of Ibgo in the north. The new military regime that had taken over Nigeria had failed to stop or attempt to track down the instigators once the massacres were over. The FMG mobilized the armed forces to take back Biafra. After a long and bloody civil war they had done just that by 1970 (Mwakikagile 2001).

The Nigerian Civil War was one of the first post-colonial period succession crises on the continent. During the long peace process it is interesting to note that most other African states supported Nigeria mainly on the principle that Nigeria’s territorial integrity was of paramount importance over the ethnic concerns of the Ibgo. This set the standard for the next 35 years of African politics: state first, tribal group second. (Diamond 1997)

The civil war was a direct response to an exclusive brand of nationalism in Nigeria. The Igbo felt left out of the decision making process in Nigeria. They were not able to gain power through the democratic process because they lacked the numbers.

When members of the tribe were slaughtered in the north, they also felt unprotected. The reaction by the Huasa-Fulani led government was muted at best. There was also a large element of protecting oil wealth on the part of the Igbo. Eriksen’s (1991) comments about excluding groups outside the nationalism from basic human rights comes to mind in this situation. The Igbo felt the only solution was to break away from the Nigerian state due to this exclusion. In the end they failed to do so, but this did not necessarily solve the problem of exclusion of groups in Nigerian nationalism.

The Role of State in Nationalism

In order to ameliorate the problems caused by regional divisions, the central government began a process of sub-dividing Nigeria into successively smaller political states. What started in 1960 as 12 states is now over 35 (including the port-capital of Lagos as a separate and independent state much like Washington DC in the United States). The aim of the subdivisions was to create states with minority majority populations, however even with 35 states groups are left out. And scattered groups like the Igbo claim gerrymandering on the part of the successive military governments in an attempt to dilute their strength (Arnold 2001).

Another legacy of the attempted split by the Ibgo was a succession of military regimes with only a few years of civilian rule interspersed. Arnold (2001) notes than in the first 40 years of independence, Nigeria had ten years of civilian rule and 30 of military rule. The problem, according to Arnold (2001), was that no group was willing to let another group rule since that group would then control the state’s oil wealth. This issue is compounded in that it is the state, not private industry, that controls the oil industry.

The role of the military in running Nigeria is not accidental. In many ways it was the only way the country could be run without falling into paralysis due to ethnic divisions. The military provided a strong central state. The Military felt that in the absence of a federal system a strong center was key to Nigeria’s stability. The Military has prided itself on being above the ethnic fray, preferring to elevate officers who have few ethnic ties. This is not to say that the military coups were positive events in the long term, but they often were short-term reactions to instability and corruption.

Instability, as both a symptom and a cause, shows up from the very beginning of modern Nigeria. In the first election, held in 1959 while Nigeria was still a colony, there was no majority winner among the three main parties: the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) (considered to be an Igbo party) led by Nnamdi Azikiwe; the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) which had control of the Northern Region (mostly Hausa-Fulani), led by Ahmadu Bello; and the Action Group (AG) which had control of the Western Region (mostly the Yoruba), led by Obafemi Awolowo. The NCNC and the NPC formed a coalition government to gain the majority. At this point the state system was fundamentally federal in nature, with each region having a fair amount of autonomy. However, events began to weaken the federal system. (Ibrahim 1998)

A 1963 census was considered tainted in favor of the Hausa Fulani. A second census was done but the results were still rejected as biased. Groups in the East and West felt that the North had been over-counted. In a clear example of how ethnic friction has clouded state policy, no censuses were conducted until 1991. An attempt was made in 1973 but faced the same problems as 1963. The 1991 census went forward only because all questions about ethnicity and religion were left off. Censuses since then have been more successful at counting actual people. One interesting side note is that the population is growing more slowly that thought. UN projections in the 1980s put Nigeria over the 120 million mark by 2000. The 1991 census showed only about 85 million people in the country. (Mwakikagile 2001)

The whole census question is a good example of the exclusive nature of Nigerian nationality. While one argument is that such censuses reinforce Nigerian identity (as opposed to ethnic group) it also excludes the secondary or alternate identity. It marginalizes ethnic identity in official state business. The state no longer recognizes, in an official quantifiable way, ethnicity. While clearly ethnicity is still important, and a factor in the state’s policy-making (see examples later on in oil policy), in this one area ethnicity has been erased, excluded (deleted comma) from consideration. In the wake of the census disasters, The NCNC and the NPC coalition fell apart and each party joined up with splinters of the former AG party (Mwakikagile 2001).

The second event was the discovery of large oil fields in the Ibo (eastern) region of the country. Up until this discovery most of Nigeria’s wealth was concentrated in the heavily populated North (and the port city Lagos). The Northern region had more people and was larger in size than the eastern and western regions. The north was mindful of its role in post-colonial Nigeria as a sort of big brother to the two lesser regions. Before the 1953 constitutional convention the northern region had even threatened to secede from Nigeria in order to maintain control over its perceived wealth. It was the two other regions that wanted the North to stay in a federal union. However, with the discovery of oil, the North wanted a stronger central state in order to ensure even distribution of oil revenue across the country. (Ibrahim 1998)

In 1966, Ibo army officers staged a coup, installing the new state’s first military government and abolishing the federal system. A counter-coup later in 1966 bought a group of Northern army officers (mostly Hausa-Fulani and mostly Muslim) to power. The Ibo, afraid that they would now be punished for the first coup and shut out of the new government, announced secession of the Eastern Region State and set up the republic of Biafra.  It is key to remember that it was the southeastern part of Nigeria, were “Biafra” was located, that contained the most oil. A three-year civil war followed that was as bloody and destructive as wars can get. In 1970 the government of Biafra collapsed and surrendered.

Yakubu Gowon, who had come to power in 1966, had declared that once peace was restored general elections would be held and a civilian government would be restored. But by late 1974 it was becoming increasingly clear that Gowon would not do this willingly. In the summer of 1975 another coup occurred, removing Gowan from power.

A series of false starts (including moving the capital of Nigeria from Lagos, an attempt that fizzled out as funds ran dry) led up to actual election in 1979 where a new civilian government was elected.  Shehu Shagari (an ethnic Yaruba) was elected president in the contested 1979 election. He became the first Nigerian president to serve his full term. Despite the troubled election it seemed that Nigeria had finally figured out a way to have a successful democratic state. Shagari appealed across tribal lines and campaigned against political divisions based on tribal alliances. It seemed that Nigeria was on track to stability (Mwakikagile 2001).

The honeymoon period was short-lived as the global economic downturn in the early ’80s began to affect Nigeria. As part of an effort that Shagari believed would help Nigeria economically, over one million foreign guest workers were expelled in early 1983 (Mwakikagile 2001). This did little to quell growing discontent in Nigeria. Shagari had been fairly successful because of the initial wealth from oil production. He was able to, in effect, pay off the various groups in Nigeria. In this way Shagari was going down the path that Trinidad’s PNC party did. The PNC was able to use oil money to not only fund state expansion of the oil industry, which benefited urban Blacks, but to also fund support of the sugar industry, which benefited Indians. (Diamond 1997)

But when oil prices collapsed in the 80s, oil revenue dried up. In Trinidad the PNC lost power as a coalition of opposition parties gained control. This coalition was made up of both Indians, who had learned to be more inclusive, and disillusioned Blacks who still remembered the brutal treatment of the Black Power movement (deleted comma) by the PNC.

Further Developments

In Nigeria there was no such coalition waiting in the wings. Shagari responded to the economic downturn by increasing the amount of graft and corruption he let go by. He may have believed that corruption was another method of paying off groups once oil money disappeared (Koehn 1990).

This began to backfire during and after the 1983 elections. The average citizen simply saw higher “user fees” for corrupt government officials while they saw less support from the state.  Money that had glided over ethnic differences was gone. In its place was a bloom of corruption that favored those in power and punished those out of power. Again, gaining power was the only way to ensure one got a “fair share.” Knowing people in government, having kin, was the best way to ensure access to the state. As a bureaucrat, one had a duty to kin first, at the exclusion of non-kin (Koehn 1990).

In 1983 Shagari ran for a second term and won again in an even more contested election. Mass demonstrations occurred throughout the country. It was widely considered that Shagari had stolen the election through mass corruption and profiteering from the oil industry. After announcing a 50% budget cut in the national budget, Shagari was the victim of another military coup, one initially welcomed by most citizens in Nigeria, who viewed Shagari as too corrupt.

Between 1983 and 1992 several coups and counter-coups occurred, but the state remained under military rule. A series of progressively brutal governments tried to control corruption, inflation and mounting public debt (due to ever -declining oil revenues). An increasing population also put a strain on the state. It was helping to widen the gap between rich and poor as the growth rate outran economic growth. (Diamond 1997)

The 1983 coup represented a backslide from ethnic integration. Both the Army and Shagari were to blame. Shagari came to power riding a wave of desire on the part of Nigerians to try and bridge ethnic divisions in society. However as Shagari gained more power he began to reward those closest to him—usually Yaruba but also many Hausa-Fulani in the army. Instead of reformation Shagari engaged in graft and corruption, despite his mandate from the electorate (Mwakikagile 2001).

The Army’s blame rests in that it was willing not just to step in and remove a corrupt politician, but then to stay on despite claims that it was going to quickly turn over power. Mwakikagile (2001) notes that Babangida and those around him feared a flare up in ethnic rivalry and the instability it would bring. But Mwakikagile also notes that Babngida became equally corrupt, if not more so, as Shagari. The fear was not so much instability, as it was sharing power (and the attendant oil wealth) with other groups.

Babangida was ruthless in repressing tribal groups that demonstrated for a greater share of control. In 1993 Babangida passed a law with a penalty of death for anyone advocating ethnic autonomy (Aborisade and Mundt 2002). This was in response to demonstration by a smaller tribal group, the Ogoni.

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) is a clear example of the role of ethnic groups in state policy, especially economic, and how such groups are excluded by the state under the banner of nationalism. MOSOP wanted greater compensation from Shell Oil, whose oil wells were mostly on land the Ogoni people lived on, and from the government. MOSOP felt that the Ogoni should get a greater share of the oil revenue since they had to deal with the environmental and health affects of the drilling. Militaristic splinter groups from MOSOP engaged in small-scale disruptions of the oil production. Shell announced a suspension of drilling in 1993, leading the government to crack down on Ogoni protestors.

Despite several attempts to negotiate a “peace,” the government and MOSOP have not been able to reach an agreement, leading to a decline in the amount of money Shell Oil has been willing to invest in the region. Although fluctuations in the price of crude oil have hurt Nigeria, the ongoing problem of the Ogoni and exploration of the part of Nigeria where they live has also slowed oil revenue (Aborisade and Mundt 2002).

This is an example of the Nigerian state dealing with an ethnic group in a normative fashion. Scott (1998) suggests that the modern state often deals with issues within the state in such a fashion. Rather than try to make the Ogoni part of a solution, the Nigerian state has been steadfast about trying to make them accept a state-imposed solution in which they have no say beyond regular voting.

Being a minority in the federal province in which they live (the Rivers state) they have little say even in a democratic situation because of the centralized nature of the Nigerian state. Rather than make room for Ogoni, even within the River state government, the central Nigerian state has demanded control, a “with us or against us” attitude. Ogoni are treated as outsiders who are alien to the Nigerian state. This to the extent that the Ogoni make up one of Africa’s larger refugee groups since the Nigerian state persecutes them in toto, as a group. (Diamond 1997)

In this case the state also acted in the name of Nigerian nationalism. Babangida justified his actions through nationalistic concerns on the part of the state. The oil revenue is critical to state revenue. MOSOP was hurting all of Nigeria by disrupting the flow of oil. The Ogoni could not maintain their identity within Nigerian nationalism because Nigerian nationalism was not flexible enough to include them. Rather than deal with the Ogoni as a citizen problem, the state dealt with them as an outsider problem. The Ogoni have become excluded from state-sponsored nationalism and either arrested and killed or exiled literally to refugee camps. (Isumonah 2003)

In 1992, the then current military head Ibrahim Babangida finally allowed elections for civilian rule, but quickly voided them as being fraudulent. New elections in 1993 were similarly made null, despite the presence and approval of international election monitors. Indeed the 1993 elections, in which Moshood Abiola won, again demonstrated that national candidates could win only by appealing to a cross-section of tribes, reaching out beyond their own tribal affiliation. It seemed, however, that the military, while clearly enjoying power, was also afraid that another civilian government would lead to a weakening of the state.

Despite a crackdown by the military regime under Babangida, massive street demonstrations and clashes with police followed the voiding of the election. As the country seemed on the verge of civil war, Babangida resigned. Ernest Shonekan was appointed President in August 1993 and by November had been thrown out by yet another military coup led by Sani Abacha. Despite claims of being a reformer, Abacha dismantled most of Nigeria’s electoral institutions and banned all political parties. Abacha announced that elections would be held, but meanwhile stamped out any opposition to his rule. In 1995 Ogoni tribe members, whose land held many of the oil fields, restarted their effort to lobby the government for relief from environmental problems brought on by the oil wells. Abacha had Ogoni leaders arrested and killed. International response was swift and South Africa, under Mandela, started an embargo on Nigerian oil. (Isumonah 2003)

By 1994 the military government was so at odds with organized labor that the oil workers voted to strike in an attempt to bring down the regime. For the first time since independence, forces outside the state participated in political organization and public political organization on a massive, statewide scale. The end result was not a change in the status quo but the seeds for successful democratic reform were planted (Ihonvbrere 1997).

Elections were scheduled for August 1998, but by April Abacha was still the only candidate on the ballot, other parties and candidates having been intimidated by Abacha supporters. Pressure mounted on Abacha to open up the elections and curb intimidation abuses. He made no moves to do either. Abacha used the excuse that opposition parties were fronts for various ethnic groups. Clearly Abacha was hiding behind the ethnic friction, which itself was real. However, he had a plausible story—there was no room for ethnic groups in Nigerian politics. Ethnicity was bad for politics and would be excluded (Isumonah 2003).

In June Abacha died of a heart attack. In May 1999 new elections were finally held and Olusegun Obasanjo was elected. Previously he had been jailed by Abacha but freed when Abacha had died. Obasanjo had experience running Nigeria. Years prior to his imprisonment he had been the military ruler (1976-1979). Obasanjo ran on a multiparty platform, appealing to voters with economic issues and not relying on ethnic appeals. In 2003 he was re-elected in a contentious election. Althoug Yoruba by birth, Obasanjo has managed to appeal to a large percentage of the voters, 62% in the last election, by again stressing economic problems and solutions (Peel 2003).

There is one key point to remember about the long years of military rule in Nigeria. The military rulers were almost always from the North and Islamic. Although most professed a “Nigerian” approach, most also focused on limiting the power of the southern regions, despite the presence of oil deposits in those regions. For instance in 1993 Abiola, the winner of the presidential election, was Yoruba and from the south. Other military personnel were Yoruba, but also loyal to the army. Abiola was a civilian and therefore not under the North’s direct control (Isumonah 2003).


The ability for the state’s citizens to feel integrated into the national identity while still maintaining their own ethnic identity seems to determine the tool’s usefulness. In states where the national identity is a “mixed salad” citizens can maintain a duel identity. This is not to say that politicians cannot or do not appeal along ethnic lines. However, they also can appeal along class or issue-based lines. In post-colonial states with large populations of lower economic class citizens, a politician is more apt to get the median voter with economic platforms than ethnic one’s, but only if the median voter feels comfortable enough to leave their ethnic group behind and join a broader class group. The citizen must feel that their ethnic identity is not a hindrance, that they belong to the “nation,” and that it is their economic background instead that they must overcome.

In Africa each native group had a claim to national identity based on ancestry. Unlike the Caribbean, where no one group could claim the rights to national identity based on “native-ness,” every individual group could do so in Africa. These native nations represent strong identities that European (colonizer) national identities could not compete with.

Africans often feel a personal attachment to ancestral group membership despite public membership in national groups—one’s extended family comes before one’s country, one’s country is not the same as one’s family (Aborisade and Mundt 2002)  They see in many Africans (although he was writing specifically about Nigerians) a primordial attachment to ethnicity that overrides an ambivalent feeling about any particular nationalism. Duties and obligations go to one’s ethnic group (kin), not to the state. The state gives, but there is not a two-way give and take in the Western sense of Nation.

Nigeria has severe class-based differences between ethnic groups. Some ethnic groups, like the Yoruba, are generally in a higher socioeconomic group, making it harder for them to band together with other, lower socioeconomic groups lest the Yoruba loose their class standing. They benefit from a strong central government since they, together with the Huasa-Fulani, are the political and bureaucratic class.  Nigeria too has a large poor population. However, it appears that citizens feel that they can gain more by staying united as an ethnic unit, so they support ethnicity-based politics.

This is because they do not see an alternative, there is no super-identity that they can relate to. Ethnic identity is tied up in family and lineage, and so essential to self-definition in the absence of greater identifiers (Aborside & Mundt 2002)  As they also point out, Nigerians feel uneasy about any sort of attempt by the state to manufacture a “Nigerian” identity since Nigeria itself is a byproduct of British imperialism. They reject that Nigeria truly exists except as a deliverer of services because they reject the origins of the state (in British colonialism).

In states where ethnicity is a useful tool, such as Nigeria, it is because the state nationalism refuses to become a “mixed salad.” In these states groups attempt to enforce their own ethnic identity onto the national identity. In order to be successful, state and ethnic group interaction must be viewed as a positive sum game, where both parties (or all parties) can gain something while at the same time giving up a little bit of the whole.

Works Cited

Aborisade, Oladimeji and Robert Mundt. 2002. Politics in Nigeria. Longman, New York.

Arnold, Guy. 2001. A Guide to African Political & Economic Development. Fitzroy Deerborn, London.

Central Intelligence Agency. 2006. World Factbook, (URL:, accessed through out 2003-2004).

Diamond, Larry 1988. Class, Ethnicity and Democracy in Nigeria: The Failure of the First Republic. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse.

Diamond, Larry, Anthony Kirk-Greene and Oyeleye Oyediran. 1997. Transition Without End: Nigerian Politics and Civil Society under Babangida. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. 1991. “Ethnicity Versus Nationalism” in Journal of Peace Research, Vol 28 No 3 pp. 263-278.

Gordon, April. 2003. Nigeria’s Diverse Peoples : A Reference Sourcebook. Oxford, Santa Barbara CA.

Horowitz, Donald. 1984. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Isumonah, Victor Adefemi. 2003. “Planned and Unplanned Outcomes: Uneven and Unsteady Pathways to Democratization in Nigeria” in Political Liberalization and Democratization in Africa: Lessons from Country Experiences. Julius Omozuanvbo Ohonvbere and John Mukum Mbaku eds. Praeger, Westport

Ibrahim, Jibrin. 1998. “The State, Accumulation and Democratic Forces in Nigeria” in Nigeria’s Third Republic: The Problems and Prospects of Political Transition to Civil Rule, Bamidele A. Ojo Ed. Nova Science Publications, Commack NY.

Koehn, Peter H. 1990. Public Policy and Administration in Africa: Lessons from Nigeria. Westview Press, Boulder.

Mwakikagile, Godfrey. 2001. Ethnic Politics in Kenya and Nigeria. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. Huntington NY

Peel, Michael. 2003. “Yenagoa Dispatch -Election Division” The New Republic Online 05/14/2003.

Sagay , Itse. 2001. “Nigeria: Federalism, the Constitution and Resource Control” speech delivered to the Urhobo Historical Society, (3/16/04)

Scott, James C. 1998. Seeing Like a State, Yale University Press, New Haven.

[1]   If this seems like an easy transition from colony to independent state, it was. Arnold (2001) notes that independence movements in Western Africa were fairly violence free. He tells a great story of a Nigerian independence leader who said that they should have erected a monument to the mosquito, Malaria and other problems with life in the equatorial tropics that did more to sour the British on their African colonies than any local independence movements.

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The Rise Of Nationalism In Nigeria
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